Meet our Alumni: 3 RSM Women with a PhD in their sights

RSM: What are you studying? What do you hope to do in the future?

Liz: I’m a PhD student in Materials Science and Engineering where I do research on magnetic materials. More specifically, I am trying to develop a micromagnetic lab-on-a-chip device for magnetic bead transport. Magnetic beads are used extensively in the biomedical field because they can tag cells or other biomolecules and then be manipulated with magnetic fields. Current techniques have their limitations, however, and this work should make magnetic bead, and thus biological sample, handling more tractable, both in terms of research and diagnostics.

I have especially enjoyed the theoretical work I have done for my project so far, and in the future I might be interested in pursuing more computational work in a similar direction.

Dina: I’m getting a PhD in Biomedical Science with a focus in infectious disease. My long-term goals are to combine my biomedical and engineering skills to develop sustainable, effective solutions to health challenges in the developing world. Applications I’m particularly interested in are lab-on-a-chip diagnostics and the design of information and therapeutic delivery systems for resource-poor settings.

Rimma: I’m a first year PhD student in Biomedical Informatics.  Specifically, I study how computer science and mathematics can help improve healthcare.  I would like to work on seamlessly integrating genetic data into people’s health records.

RSM: How many women are there in your department? Out of how many men? Any thoughts on that?

Liz: In the Materials Science graduate department there are around 30-40 women (I’m not sure what the number is like for undergraduates.) I’d say this represents about 10% of the graduate students.

Dina: I am affiliated with two departments. At the faculty level, Nuclear Medicine has 11 women and 19 men and Microbiology&Immunology has 10 women and 15 men. The graduate student breakdown is approximately 32 women to 27 men. In part due to heavy recruiting in the late 90s, there are more women in medicine and the sciences than ever before. While this change has yet to propagate to high-level faculty and industry positions, it is already evident in better mentoring and a more female-friendly work environment, and will hopefully result in more educated female role models. It’s been an interesting transition from my undergraduate degree in engineering where females comprised less than 30% of the class to a medical school where the student body is ~60% female. I would say that while fewer women than men go into math and the sciences, those that do are more likely to stick it out and succeed. It’s great to see the increasing number of fellowships and programs geared towards encouraging female involvement in the sciences!

Rimma: In my PhD year, I’m the only female out of 6.  Which is rather peculiar given that out of the entire PhD student group there are 10 women and 15 men.  I believe my department is really trying to create an even playing field and has made it a point to encourage young women into the field of biomedical informatics.

RSM: What role, if any, did RSM play in affecting your career choice or in the work you do today?

Liz: I think the best way I can answer this is to say that when my friends from RSM didn’t go into something math or science related, I was always pretty surprised. I think a lot of American students see the maths and sciences as something too dry and hard to be interested in. It’s almost as if someone being interested in either of these is an exception. Coming from a Russian Jewish background and going to RSM, I have always considered it obvious that you’d have a strong math and science background. Thus, the biggest advantage I gained from going to RSM was that I didn’t see myself as having a particular advantage compared to anyone else there–it’s perfectly normal for me.

But the most important aspect of my RSM experience was how it strengthened my confidence. If you’d ask anyone how I was before RSM and after, I’m sure they’d tell you I was like two different people.

Dina: While I am fortunate to have highly educated and involved parents as well as a naturally inquisitive personality, RSM was a major contributor to my academic success. The logical thinking skills RSM developed are as invaluable for writing term papers and taking the GMAT as they are for solving proofs. With the confidence that RSM had given me a great math foundation, I was unafraid to take academic risks and was pre-disposed for success years after I finished taking courses. Since math classes build on prior knowledge, even in grad school I reap the advantage of solid basic training. Along with increasing math skills, RSM fostered a very unique form of intellectual enthusiasm and healthy competition between students. We raced to solve problems but then immediately turned to explain the concept to our neighbors. Students strove for individual success but also learned the benefits of an open intellectual environment and supporting fellow classmates. These lessons translate directly to a career in science, where the most successful researchers are defined by their ability to collaborate and share knowledge as well as the strength of their academic training.

Rimma: RSM was the first place where I really began to believe in my academic abilities; with the motivation of the teachers and the social network created during the years of weekend math classes I developed confidence in my scholarly endeavors.  RSM introduced me to logical thinking, the basis for the type of analyses I am expected to conduct on a daily basis during my research.

RSM: Any advice to young female students interested in a mathematical or scientific career?

Liz: Go for it if you enjoy it, and don’t if you don’t. But definitely don’t shy away from it because it seems daunting or not-female friendly. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to learn, and it only gets cooler the longer you pursue it.

Dina:

  1. Do it. It’s time to show the world what you’re made of!
  2. Force yourself to take chances, ask questions, and overcome your fear of ridicule or failure. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take and failure will ultimately teach you more than success.
  3. Be physically active. A healthy body will help promote a healthy mind and keep you centered.
  4. Most importantly, invest in your fellow women. Encourage them, learn from them, and feel genuine happiness at their triumphs. As Gloria Vanderbilt wisely opined, “I’ve always believed that one woman’s success can only help another woman’s success.” Form a peer and mentor support network and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Rimma: Science doesn’t care about your gender; just ask interesting questions, learn novel techniques and conduct well-thought out experiments!  There are always people dedicated to encouraging students to explore their scientific interests- take advantage of that.  Its a wonderful world of science out there, go play!

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By: Masha   Masha

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